Saturday, September 7, 2013

Why We Need Rural Churches (and Why They May Need to Change)

One of the advantages to becoming disciplined in writing a regular blog (in my case, this seems to be about weekly) is that you become much more aware of potential subjects and/or are constantly thinking about the next blog posting.  For myself, this is an experience that is similar to what I go through every week in my sermon preparation--except I can ramble more in my blog. [Also, I don't have to look at you as your eyes glaze over reading my blog.]

I just finished reading an article in the current issue of Christianity Today called "Why We Need Small Towns" (by Jake Meador, Christianity Today, September 2013).  In this article, the author writes about how residents of smaller communities can "...remind an American church intent on doing and being more that sometimes, the best life is given to quiet, simplicity, and smallness."   He notes that there is a trend among rural churches that is a reflection of the trend in our society--pastors of rural churches are harder and harder to find because 'pastoral success' is measured more about the size of a ministry/church than about making a Kingdom impact for where you are planted/sent.  He calls the resulting rural effect "ecclesial deserts."

Following are a few of my 'musings' concerning this subject:

1.  Every person needs Jesus. Population density per square mile does not change this basic fact of creation.  Thus, evaluating Kingdom need must factor this in--otherwise large swaths of people will die without Jesus.

2.  The independent nature of rural residents (especially Nevada rural residents!) in a post-Christian culture (see my 9/02 blog for discussion on this topic) only underscores the need to focus on the inherent value of 'community' rather than on the institution of the church. 

3.  The emphasis of a rural church in trying to maintain traditional church approaches/programs in an increasingly relationally disconnected society may actually accelerate the decline of that church's life:

-  An emphasis on preaching as the main focal point of a church service (rather than the experience of relating to God and each other in the transformative power of the Holy Spirit) means that paltry preaching translates into paltry attendance.  Also, difficulty in hiring a 'preacher' who will invest in the lives of the community long-term will have a much greater negative impact on a church with this singular sermon-centric focus.  [Don't misunderstand me--God's written Word must always be central, but it must become the Living Word, not just a spoken word.]

-  An emphasis on 'coming to church' to experience Christian life rather than the Great Commission's command to "go to the community" (Matthew 28:19-20) means that it becomes easier and easier for other 'more important' things to take precedent from a community that doesn't want to come to church--especially as post-Christian values and perspectives increase.

- An emphasis by regular church attenders in protecting the traditions of the church rather than seeking ways to become greater influencers in the life of the community will result in a church's slow but inevitable demise.  An unfortunate side effect is that a church becomes more inward focused, thus, losing its call to be a mission organization beginning in its own 'Jerusalem' (Acts 1:8-9).  Once a church begins marching down this path, the energy and focus of church members naturally becomes directed towards church survival--trying to maintain a semblance of 'once was' rather than 'what could be.'

4.  Rural churches must be open to moving away from the ministry model of creating 'attractive events' to a model of ministry that emphasizes becoming an 'attractive community.'

5.  Change is painful. However, growth (in any area of life) can only happen in the midst of change.  By definition, if we are unwilling to change (because of comfort, fear, disobedience, pride/stubbornness, etc.)--we have automatically told God that we are unwilling to grow spiritually anymore.  Accordingly, we should have no expectations of God's blessing on our church because He always considers partial obedience to be the same as disobedience (see the story of King Saul in 1 Sam. 15).

6.  Finally, I would encourage those who are currently serving as pastors in a rural environment to recalibrate your perspective of 'ministry success.'  It is not about bigger and better--it is about responding in obedience to the call of God in every aspect of your life.  We are to operate with a sense of urgency (as if Jesus could come back tomorrow) and we are to always seek to reach more people (because God's desire is that no one should perish)--but we should always do it from smack dab in the center of God's will.

I can authoritatively state, based on Scripture, that God does not desire our rural communities to become "ecclesial deserts" but desires the Body of Christ in every community to be oases of people leading others to He who is Living Water. 

Enough ramblings for today. Until next time...

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